A stupid column about Jewish geniuses

Are Jews smart? This is a really stupid question, but New York Times columnist Bret Stephens asked it anyway.

His December 27 column “The Secrets of Jewish Genius” puts forth the theory that Jewish geniuses are different from other geniuses because of their Jewishness. It included a link to a racist and discredited study that explores the genetic superiority of one of the two main Jewish subgroups, Ashkenazi Jews. The Times has since removed the link and published an “Editor’s Note.”

Making generalizations about ethnic groups is dangerous and generally racist. Generalizations about ethnic groups, genetics, and intelligence are the worst. First of all, “intelligence” is a social construct; IQ tests are invalid due to cultural bias. Secondly, variation within ethnic and racial groups is far larger than any differences between them. And finally, any discussion of genetic differences feeds racist rhetoric and violence, which is the last thing we need when people are attacking each other over race — including attacks on Jews.

My view is that Jews have historically (1) been persecuted, which has generated solidarity, and (2) revered education, which has enabled many of them to be successful. These are cultural qualities. As a result of this, there are many well educated, accomplished, and highly visible Jews. I’m not aware of any studies that look at whether these Jews are more likely to be Ashkenazi or not. And there are plenty of dumb and poorly educated Jews, as well. There is no need to bring genetics into it.

Taking apart Stephens’ column

Stephens should never have written his column. But let’s take a look at it and see where the weaknesses are. Below are excerpts and criticism. The parts shown in italics are what the Times later deleted.

The Secrets of Jewish Genius
It’s about thinking different.

Is there a particular form of Jewish genius? Read the column and judge for yourself, but I don’t think there is — and I think it’s offensive to even look for one. (And by the way, Apple ad campaign or not, “Thinking different” is a grammatical error that doesn’t belong in the Times.)

Norman Lebrecht’s new book, “Genius & Anxiety,” an erudite and delightful study of the intellectual achievements and nerve-wracked lives of Jewish thinkers, artists, and entrepreneurs between 1847 and 1947. Sarah Bernhardt and Franz Kafka; Albert Einstein and Rosalind Franklin; Benjamin Disraeli and (sigh) Karl Marx — how is it that a people who never amounted even to one-third of 1 percent of the world’s population contributed so seminally to so many of its most pathbreaking ideas and innovations?

Is a book on “geniuses” from 100 years ago valid for analyzing today’s world? I don’t think so.

There were other geniuses in that era. How about Adolph Hitler — he certainly made an outsized impact, but as far as I know he wasn’t an Ashkenazi Jew. Neither was Marie Curie. Neither was W.E.B. Du Bois. I can cherry-pick geniuses all day long. When you’re analyzing the top 0.0001% on some arbitrary scale of “genius” that can’t be measured, there is no valid case to be made logically or statistically.

The common answer is that Jews are, or tend to be, smart. When it comes to Ashkenazi Jews, it’s true. “Ashkenazi Jews have the highest average I.Q. of any ethnic group for which there are reliable data,” noted one 2005 paper. “During the 20th century, they made up about 3 percent of the U.s. population but won 27 percent of the U.S. Nobel science prizes and 25 percent of the ACM Turing Awards. The account for more than half of world chess champions.”

But the “Jews are smart” explanation obscures more than it illuminates. Aside from the perennial nature-or-nurture question of why so many Ashkenazi Jews have higher I.Q.’s, there is the more difficult question of why that intelligence was so often matched by such bracing originality and high-minded purpose. . . .

You can see how offensive the deleted portion is, especially the citation from the now discredited paper. This is not about Jews or IQ, it’s about citing a few geniuses to support a feeling of superiority.

And the “Jews are smart” explanation? That’s not an explanation, it’s blatant and unsupported assumption. There is nothing “[a]side from perennial nature-or-nurture questions” — those are the questions, and as I’ve explained, nurture functions just fine to answer them.

. . . Jewish genius operates differently. It is prone to question the premise and rethink the concept; to ask why (or why not?) as often as how; to see the absurd in the mundane and the sublime in the absurd. Where Jews’ advantage more often lies is in thinking different.

Is it at least conceivable that a culture that struggles under centuries of persecution and reveres education might develop some individuals with a wicked sense of humor and an ability to appreciate arguments and contradictions? There’s no need to postulate the existence of a unique quality called “Jewish genius” to explain it. It’s a reaction of educated people under generations of pressure.

If the greatest Jewish minds seem to have no walls, it may be because, for Jews, the walls have so often come tumbling down.

These explanations for Jewish brilliance aren’t necessarily definitive. Nor are they exclusive to the Jews.

So why bother attempting to explain what it isn’t clear exists, nor isn’t clear is exclusive to Jews?

The Editor’s Note

If you’re going to write and publish a column like this, you’re going to step into a hornet’s nest of racism and antisemitism. Genius doesn’t require an explanation, racial or otherwise.

But having done so, of course, The Times and Stephens needed to deal with the blowback. They did this by removing the link to the problematic study and publishing this “Editor’s Note.”

An earlier version of this Bret Stephens column quoted statistics from a 2005 paper that advanced a genetic hypothesis for the basis of intelligence among Ashkenazi Jews. After publication Mr. Stephens and his editors learned that one of the paper’s authors, who died in 2016, promoted racist views. Mr. Stephens was not endorsing the study or its authors’ views, but it was a mistake to cite it uncritically. The effect was to leave an impression with many readers that Mr. Stephens was arguing that Jews are genetically superior. That was not his intent. He went on instead to argue that culture and history are crucial factors in Jewish achievements and that, as he put it, “At its best, the West can honor the principle of racial, religious and ethnic pluralism not as a grudging accommodation to strangers but as an affirmation of its own diverse identity. In that sense, what makes Jews special is that they aren’t. They are representational.” We have removed reference to the study from the column.

In the deleted passage, Stephens said that Jews “might have a marginal advantage over their gentile peers when it comes to thinking better.”

This is highly problematic, but it is not the only problematic thing in the column. The note says, “The effect was to leave an impression with many readers that Mr. Stephens was arguing that Jews are genetically superior. That was not his intent.” Intent doesn’t matter here. In a column like this, you are basically arguing that Jews are superior. What is that supposed to accomplish?

My own experience

I’m from an Ashkenazi Jewish background. (Stephens is Jewish, too, in case you couldn’t tell.)

There was a tradition of revering education and encouraging discussion in my family. My father was a college professor.

I think that helped my siblings and me to succeed. We went to college and some of us went to graduate school; one got a Ph.D. in math (not me). I don’t know if any of us were geniuses, because what the hell does that even mean.

I was privileged to work at Forrester Research, which was a pretty good laboratory for this “hypothesis” since it was filled with some of the smartest people I ever met.

The founding CEO was brilliant, but he wasn’t Jewish.

There were lots of Jewish analysts there. There were lots of other brilliant analysts who weren’t Jewish. Among these I count the authors and coauthors of the books I wrote and edited, none of whom were Jewish.

The most brilliant and contrarian thinker at Forrester wasn’t Jewish, he was Mormon.

A lot of the really smart people there were Asian — of Chinese, Japanese, Indian, and Korean descent. Their parents also prioritized education and were part of tight-knit communities. I don’t believe that any of that points to any sort of genetic pattern, nor do I think it has anything to say about Asians in general.

Many of the really smart people there were gay. What is the correlation between being gay and being really smart? I don’t see it. I know lots of stupid gay people, too.

This whole business of making generalizations about geniuses makes me profoundly queasy. Brilliant people do think differently. They are unique. This makes it very hard to make generalizations about them at all. That includes ethnic and religious generalizations.

Steve Jobs was born of parents of Syrian descent and adopted. Does this mean Syrians and adoptees are more likely to be geniuses? Srinivasa Ramanujan was an incredibly creative mathematical genius from India. What does that say about the billions of other ethnic Indians? Absolutely nothing.

Here’s what I can tell you. The next genius could come from anywhere. Her parents could be rich or poor; she could be black, brown, white, or yellow, and might be Muslim, Catholic, Jewish, Hindu, atheist, or Zoroastrian.

Education and encouraging vigorous debate will help nurture the next set of geniuses. Beyond that, I’m sick of the generalizations, which only fuel race and religious hatred.

This post has been edited to include the now-deleted material from the column, which I didn’t find until the next day.

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  1. Josh – oof, amazing to see that article was even attempted, let alone at The Times. Looks like Stephens violated many of your “11 key skills of a true analyst” – which I’ve found useful to keep myself on track.

    This kind of lazy stereotyping is exactly why we wrote The Gen Z Effect back in 2014. Boomers aren’t the devil, and neither are Gen Y or Gen Z, those lazy good for nothings. 😉

    Treating anywhere from 24 million (The Silent Generation) to 90 million (Gen Z) [Source: https://www.statista.com/statistics/797321/us-population-by-generation/ ] as though each person in that generation is exactly the same is just asinine. Using generational boundaries to carve up and finger point at other generations as being the problem is one of the main barriers to progress as a society, and certainly to the problems we experience in the most stagnant organizations.

    For all of the Big Data we’re swimming in these days, it’s amazing what tiny bits of data (or raw opinion) people will glom onto in order to demonstrate some sort of definitive proof when the reality is the data, such as it is, says nothing of the sort.

  2. In my view, all generalizations and stereotypes are invalid at the individual, To paraphrase Dr. King, people should be evaluated not by the content of their DNA but by the content of their character.

    IQ is a function of many factors including personality, Those disposed to spend an inordinate amount of time on their studies tend to score better on standardized tests. Perhaps that’s why academic achievement is not directly correlated with career achievement or quality of life.

    Columnists have the liberty to choose the topics they address, and in the current environment Stephen’s choice of this topic was risky in the extreme. However, the tone is more academic than supremacist.